#scio10 day three: In which the discussion of online civility remains (almost) entirely civil

Sunday morning, the final sessions of Science Online 2010 seemed almost planned to tie together the broad theme of the conference – how best to connect science (and working scientists) with the rest of society.

Broader impact done right: A heavily marine-themed panel – Karen James of the Beagle Project, Deep Sea blogger Kevin Zelnio, Miriam Goldstein of the Oyster’s Garter, the New England Aquarium’s Jeff Ives and NASA’s Beth Beck – discussed a wide range of science outreach options available, mostly from the perspective of working scientists.

A consensus emerged that good outreach, of which online resources are now usually a part, is essential to basic research, and will be increasingly important in obtaining funding. Funnily enough, my collaborator Chris Smith had just e-mailed me about the possibility of bringing a satellite broadband connection with us for the upcoming field season – maybe we’ll be live-blogging Joshua tree research this year.

Article-level metrics: Peter Binfield, the managing editor of PLoS ONE, discussed the ways in which PLoS is now measuring the impact of individual articles published through its online, open-access journals – not just citation counts, but also pageviews, PDF download rates, and the recent collaboration with ResearchBlogging.org to track blog coverage. It’s clear that research articles aren’t going to be judged by the impact factor of their containing journals anymore, now that you get a citation count with every Google Scholar search, and it’ll be interesting to see what scheme emerges as global standard for article-level impact.

Online civility: Science bloggers Janet “Dr. Freeride” Stemwedel, Sheril Kirshenbaum, and the pseudonomous Dr. Isis led discussion about what constitutes civil behavior in an online setting – and the conversation turned into something of an object lesson, as disagreement over the meaning of civility itself turned, well, very nearly un-civil. The panel did, I thought, an admirable job demonstrating in “real life” the skills necessary for online moderation of touchy discussions.

I wouldn’t say there was consensus, but the room did seem to come together around the ideas that communities define their own standards of civility, that those very standards can make it difficult to express minority or dissenting points of view, and that (judicious) incivility can be useful for minorities trying to be heard. Dave Munger made that last point, and I hope my paraphrase does it justice – I think it’s an important one. Certainly it’s the case that sexual minorities have been (and still are – I’m looking at you, Mennonite Church USA) told that merely acknowledging our existence and discussing our perspective is a violation of civility, inasmuch as “civil” is equivalent to “suitable for general audiences.” It was a great discussion, and I’m still processing it – it might be worth a dedicated post in the near future.

So now I’m sitting in the Raleigh-Durham airport, writing up the weekend over dodgy, overpriced WiFi – I’ve been badly spoiled by SignalShare’s fantastic service. Many, many thanks to organizers Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker, and to the sponsors, who put on a fantastic conference – and especially to NESCent, who made it possible for me to attend. It was a great time!

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#scio10 day two: In which the discussion turns to duck genitalia within the second session

Science Online is not like the Evolution meetings. This was evident in the first session I entered, where the plastic click of laptop keys underlay the conversation between the panelists and the audience. Twitter was a second venue for discussion the whole conference, and you could track audience interest in a given session purely from posts with the #scio10 hashtag. Notes on the sessions I attended:

  • From blog to book: Tom Levenson, Brian Switek, and Rebecca Skloot discussed the usefulness of blogging for authors and developing authors, mostly as a venue for promoting books, but also as a space for developing ideas and writing to develop a book.
  • Rebooting science journalism: Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, and David Dobbs led discussion about the future of science journalism online, with emphasis on unique ways to connect the diverse and Balkanized interest groups of the web to science news, and an extensive aside on the recently discovered role of sexual selection in the morphology of ducks’ penises and vaginas – Carl wasn’t able to publish much detail via a print magazine, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) the story proved popular online. This set off a flurry of interest in the article in question, and revealed I’m not the only one who thought this phenomenon makes limerick fodder.
  • Demonstrations of a new German science magazine for children, an online hub for New Zealand-centric science reporting, use of Second Life as a science education resource, and the Open Dinosaur Project. I wasn’t strongly impressed by the Second Life presentation – I don’t see the usefulness of the 3-d environment over conventional instant messaging. On the other hand, Andy Farke’s Open Dinosaur Project is doing amazing things with a bunch of volunteer “citizen scientists” assembling a morphological data from the literature. It’s a new model for digging data out of old publications, and it’s not hard to think of other projects that could benefit from a similar approach.
  • An open history of science: John McKay and Eric Michael Johnson discussed the history of media employed in scientific societies. Turns out that Enlightenment-era scientists corresponding by mail, the informal science societies they formed, and the journals they compiled from each others’ letters were more like the modern blogosphere than you might think.
  • Online reference managers: representatives from Citeulike, Mendeley, Zotero, and Scopus talked about their various products’ approaches to organize researchers’ electronic reference libraries, and to use personal contacts and library content to recommend new material. There’s some interesting possibilities – enough that I’ve downloaded Mendeley (the only one, so far as I could tell, that has a locally-installed client) to play around with for a bit. I’d love to ditch EndNote, if I can extract my thousands of references and linked files without too much bother.

The day concluded with a banquet at the hotel, capped by a series of brief “ignite” talks on everything from the benefits of blogging while working toward tenure to a crowd-sourced project to check the accuracy of chemistry information in online sources.

Here’s a slideshow of photos uploaded to Flickr with the #scio10 tag, mostly from Saturday if I’m not mistaken.

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#scio10 day one: NESCent!

As one of the recipients of the Science Online travel awards, I spent Friday morning, and lunch, visiting National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. NESCent is an NSF-funded space where postdoctoral fellows and faculty members on sabbatical are put together with an unlimited supply of coffee to apply new analyses to (mostly) existing datasets, often in collaboration with researchers at Duke University, the University of North Carolina, or North Carolina State University, the three institutions administering the center.

In three and a half hours, I met with (in no particular order) Craig McClain, Robin Smith, Carlos Botero, Julie Meachen-Samuels, Ben Redelings, Trina Roberts, Juan Santos, and Gregor Yanega – it was extremely stimulating, and a little dizzying. (The other travel award winner, Christie Wilcox, arrived later in the morning, straight off her multi-connection flight from Hawaii, but she held up remarkably well.) The visit wrapped up with lunch at a nice cafe across the street from the NESCent offices, and then it was off to the lemurs with me. I can’t think of a better way to start the conference than a morning packed full of smart people doing interesting science.

Update, 17 Jan 2010: Christie took a couple photos, one of which I’m posting here:


Welcomed by NESCent. Photo by Christie Wilcox.
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#scio10: Skepticism != cynicism

In preparatory remarks for a Science Online session about trust and critical thinking, Stephanie Zvan makes a point that isn’t made often enough:

You’ve met them. “Oh, those scientists. They get their funding from the government/industry/political think tanks. They’re just producing the results needed to keep their money flowing. They’ll say anything it takes. Besides, it’s not like they don’t make mistakes. Even Newton and Einstein had it wrong.”

You’ve met the others, too. “My friend told me about an Oprah show where she talked to a writer who explained how the universe really works. I always knew it was a special place made just for me.”

There’s no polite way to say it, but it can be said simply. They’re both doing it wrong.

The point being that the opposite of complete credulousness – cynicism – is not the same thing as skepticism. I see the term “skeptic” used as a synonym for “cynic” all over the place. But they’re not the same thing at all – the cynic is the guy in Zvan’s first example, who trusts nothing at all. A skeptic, on the other hand, does trust, given justification. Skepticism is positive; it believes that there are knowable answers to factual questions, and that human brainpower can deduce them. A skeptic may rarely decide that a given answer is the final word on a question, but that’s not at all the same thing as rejecting the possibility of a useful answer.

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I’m going to Research Triangle Park!

Specifically, to attend the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center’s ScienceOnline 2010 conference from 14 to 17 January — I learned today that my post on the evolution of human lactase persistence won one of two awards to cover travel expenses to the conference. The other award went to Christie Lynn at Observations of a Nerd, for a great discussion of how environmental change can turn a useful trait into a dangerous one.

The NESCent site has the details and a complete list of entrants, all of which deserve a read. It’s really an honor to have my work selected, and I’m very excited about the conference. And, yes, I’ll blog about it.

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